Weak polyelectrolytes tethered to surfaces: Effect of geometry, acid-base equilibrium and electrical permittivity

Rikkert Nap, Peng Gong, Igal Szleifer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

128 Scopus citations


The structural and thermodynamical properties of weak polyelectrolytes end-tethered to surfaces of arbitrary geometry are studied using a molecular theory. The theory is based on writing down the free energy functional of the system including all the basic interactions and the explicit acid-base equilibrium for the chargeable groups of the polymer. The theory explicitly includes the size, shape, conformations, and charge distribution of all the molecular species. The electrostatic interactions include a density-dependent dielectric function, modeled with the Maxwell-Garnett mixing formula, to account for the composition-dependent permittivity. The minimization of the free energy leads to the distribution of all molecular species and their dependence on bulk pH and salt concentration. We apply the theory to polymer chains end-tethered to planar, cylindrical, and spherical surfaces. The radius of the curved surfaces is small to enhance the curvature effect. We find that when the grafting surfaces are uncharged, the approximation of a constant dielectric function works very well for both structural and thermodynamic properties. The structure of weak polyelectrolytes tethered on cylindrical and spherical surfaces is different from that of polymers tethered on planar surfaces due to the available volume as a function of the distance from the surface. Specifically, the degree of dissociation increases with increasing curvature of the surface. This is a manifestation of the coupling between the local density of protons, counterions, and polymer segments. The results can be interpreted in terms of the local Le Chatelier principle for the acid-base equilibrium, with proper account of the three local contributions: counterions, protons, and chargeable groups. We find that one can achieve local changes of pH between one to two units within 1-2 nm. The thickness of the tethered layers as a function of bulk pH shows a large increase when the pH is equal to the bulk pK. However, the variation with salt concentration is different for the different geometries. The largest swelling is found for cylindrical surfaces. The predictions from scaling theories of a maximum in the thickness of the film as a function of salt concentration is found for planar films, but not for curved surfaces. Finally, the interactions between cylinders with tethered polyelectrolytes is very different from the equivalent planar surfaces. These results are important for the interpretation of force measurements with nanoscale AFM tips. The implications of the results for the rational design of responsive tethered polymer layers is discussed together with the limitations of the theoretical approach.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2638-2662
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Polymer Science, Part B: Polymer Physics
Issue number18
StatePublished - Sep 15 2006


  • Polyelectrolytes
  • Surfaces
  • Theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Polymers and Plastics
  • Materials Chemistry

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